Senator Tom Harkin

Space to grow: Investing in schools, not sweatshops

Twelve years ago, the International Labour Organization (ILO) unanimously adopted Convention No. 182 Concerning the Prohibition and Immediate Action for the Elimination of the Worst Forms of Child Labour. It declared that, as a matter of urgency, the worldwide community should be unequivocal about ending abusive and exploitative child labour once and for all.

Bear in mind that the term “abusive and exploitative labour” does not refer to kids helping out on the family farm or performing wholesome, after-school work. Rather, it refers to the horror of children who are chained to looms, who work in sweatshops under slave-like conditions, who are forced to sell illegal drugs, sold into prostitution or pornography, or forcibly recruited into armed conflict. It also refers to the many young children and adolescents in hazardous work situations being exposed to physical hazards and psychological abuse, those working in agriculture with dangerous tools and harmful chemicals, and girls working as domestic servants – isolated and often victims of sexual abuse. These children endure long hours of hard labour, with little or no pay. They are denied an education and deprived of normal growth and development. They are children stripped of their childhood.

I was first introduced to this issue when I witnessed the tragedy of child slaves in the carpet industry children who were beaten and starved, forced to live without love or hope. My own investigations of abusive and exploitative child labour have taken me to Bangladesh, India, Nepal, Pakistan and West Africa.

However, this problem is too big for a few committed advocates on the ground, much less for a single U.S. Senator. And that is why the adoption of ILO Convention No. 182 in 1999 was such a landmark event. It put the full power and prestige of the United Nations behind the fight against abusive and exploitative child labour.

And it initially bore fruit. According to ILO, between the years 2000 and 2004, the number of child labourers 5 to 17 years old worldwide fell by 11 per cent, from 246 million to 218 million. This downward trend was certainly encouraging. While ILO’s most recent estimates, from 2008, show further decrease in the number of child labourers down to 215 million – the rate of decline has slowed to only one per cent since 2004.

However, over the last two years, we have experienced a global recession. Unemployment surged. Prices for basic food staples rose sharply. These dire circumstances have provided a fertile breeding ground for the worst forms of child labour. Desperate people resort to desperate and degrading measures to survive, including forcing young children and adolescents into abusive labour.

I believe that if we are against child labour, then we must be for greater access to schooling for every child under 18 years old. We must be for basic social supports, so that vulnerable families are not obliged to relinquish their kids to exploitation.

How can we encourage these positive changes?

First and foremost, we must provide access to decent education. School fees and related costs effectively close the schoolhouse door to millions of poor children. And, in many places, especially in rural areas, there simply are no schools. Wealthy nations must spend less on their militaries and more on education in developing nations. We need fewer bombs and more books, fewer soldiers and more teachers.

We need to provide generous support to a project called “UCW – Understanding Children’s Work”, a collaboration among ILO, UNICEF and the World Bank to improve data collection, research capacity and monitoring systems related to child labour. This is an outstanding example of diverse agencies working shoulder to shoulder under the auspices of the United Nations.

In addition, donor nations must embrace proven programmes, such as Brazil’s Bolsa Familia initiative. Under Bolsa Familia, poor families in Brazil are given a stipend by the government of approximately $35 a month in return for a commitment to keep their children in school and take them for regular health check-ups. Brazil has created a brilliant model.

Let me close by sharing a portion of a letter from a child labourer whose life was transformed by a U.S. Department of Labor supported education initiative program in Santiago, Dominican Republic:

“They call me El Abuelo because I am the oldest of six siblings. Since I was five, I’ve been every day to the dump to work for money or to find food. One day I was coming back and heard some children laughing and singing. I got closer to discover many of my garbage-picking friends inside. They told me that they were in a program called Espacios para Crecer (Spaces to Grow). They were learning reading and writing. Next day, without telling my grandma, I left early from the dump and went to the school. If I want to be somebody in the future I have to study. I do not want to grow up in the dump, I want to be a teacher and teach others everything that has been taught to me.”

Every child deserves “espacios para crecer”. Every child deserves spaces to grow.

Senator Tom Harkin (D-IA) is a long-time leader in the fight to end abusive child labour around the globe. He has secured over $300 million to fight child labour worldwide, introduced several bills to combat the worst forms of child labour and negotiated a public-private partnership with the cocoa industry to combat abusive child labour.


The global state of adolescents; the challenges they face in health, education, protection and participation; and the risks and vulnerabilities of this pivotal stage are looked at closely in a series of panels in the report, available as a PDF.


Adults and adolescents were invited to give their perspectives on the critical issues facing adolescents in the 21st century.